10° 40' N, 61° 30' W

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Soirée in Paris

I have to confess that I was not wowed by Paris. Don't get me wrong., though. I enjoyed my visit, and the city really is quite beautiful. It was also fortunate that I was there for the Féte de la Musique, with lots of cool spontaneous jam sessions all over the city. Real French pastry is much better than the stuff they sell here. The Musée d'Orsay was a sight to behold--one of the best art museums I've ever been to (artwise, that is; architecturally it's different story). The boulevards and the cafés are a wonderful sight.

That's said, I did not feel the proverbial "magic". Maybe it's because I expected to. I try to treat places I've never been to as a process of discovery, trying to get a "feel" for it. The friend i went with was gushing about the place, which sort of affected my thoughts on it. The impression I got was of a city that seriously does not take itself that seriously. This is in contrast to the French state, with does things in a very determined fashion. Haussman's boulevards, the layout of the buildings and gardens and Mitterand's grand projets are all a testament to the power of the French government,.but does not say much for the citizens of Paris, who are a relatively laid-back lot. I saw no evidence of the strikes that have plagued the city recently, not the impression that this city at the "heart of Europe" (to use a British expression) was suffering from economic difficulties. Maybe it's because rthe city is a survivor--it's been there, it's seen that. Why worry?

I could be wrong. I was a tourist, after all, and I don't speak French; I also did not have much opportunity to interact with the Parisians who were not service staff, all of whom, it must be said, wee quite pleasant, in contrast to what I've heard. You do see signs of French exceptionalism, but also evidence to the contrary--most of the bands in the Féte de la Musique, for instance, played American rock music, which surprised me. The place is different, allright, but not that different.

This is why I agree with Alex Singleton of Samizdata that boycotting France is a mistake. Engagement can only work to break down the barriers--to maintain France's uniquness, while making the place less "exceptional". Maybe then they could be less intransigent on some things, like a real reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy. France is a great nation, but it, like Britain, probably needs to stop trying so hard to make sure everyone knows this. Like the residents of Paris, France needs to relax, and not take itself so seriously.